Fury as peak-time free travel in Darlington is axed
Pensioners in Darlington are no longer entitled to use their bus pass early in the morning as a result of cutbacks. Paul Cook speaks to some of those affected.
TWO years ago, hundreds of pensioners responded to a call to arms when free morning peak hour bus travel was taken away from them.
A petition containing 1,400 signatures was raised against the decision, which would save Darlington Borough Council £360,000.
Their campaign was ultimately successful in restoring free bus travel before 9.30am – beyond statutory obligations – after the council received an insurance windfall.
For the same reason that the current round of cuts has followed a reduction of grants, town hall bosses say it is only fair to put money back into the council purse when it wins extra funding.
However, in light of the current squeeze on public spending, one of the first savings in Darlington has once again been reducing the use of bus passes.
There are more than 18,000 pensioners holding bus passes in the town and an additional 2,000 disabled passholders.
Stopping them travelling free before 9.30am and after 11pm will save the council £343,000 a year.
As a result, the same campaign groups are again voicing their opposition to the changes.
They claim that pensioners need to travel before 9.30am for a vast array of reasons, including babysitting grandchildren, carrying out voluntary work and making doctors appointments.
Pat Buttle, Darlington representative from the National Pensioners Convention, is fighting the change alongside Darlington Against Cuts.
She said: “Any setback to pensioners is a regret. A lot of pensioners will work voluntarily and they have to start at 9am.
“It could be much worse because we do still have a pensioner’s pass, but for a little bit of money that it is going to save, the council still has much more money to save.”
Another campaigner is Shirley Winter. She said that in 2008 buses were experiencing overcrowding because pensioners were waiting until 9.30am to travel.
She said: “We are not going to let this go without a fight. I can’t believe we are having to fight the Government and the borough council together.
“Why can’t the council just say no. It is about time that they stood up for the least well off, the vulnerable, disabled and elderly.”
The council says in the reports it prepared for cabinet earlier this year that buses may experience overcrowding. Its assessment of the proposals also admits that the change “will be unpopular with users”.
A council spokeswoman said: “The change to concessionary bus passes is as a result of cuts in the Government’s funding for local authorities, which means we will now only offer statutory concessionary bus passes.
These allow free travel between 9.30am and 11pm Monday to Friday, and all day on weekends and bank holidays.
“We have worked with the Primary Care Trust to get an understanding from GPs and consultants about early medical appointments and residents are reminded that appointments can be rearranged after 9.30am, when bus travel is free, by calling the number on their appointment letter.
“Some people travelling to hospital may also be able to receive financial assistance for their journey as part of the Healthcare Travel Costs scheme.
“Concessionary pass holders can of course travel on the buses before 9.30am but would need to pay a standard fare.
“Local bus operators will be ready to respond to any overcrowding issues should these occur just after 9.30am.”
For more information about the Healthcare Travel Costs scheme, call 0845-8501-166.